In 1879, U.S. Army Captain Richard H. Pratt persuaded the federal government to allow him to establish an off-reservation boarding school for American Indians at the abandoned cavalry barracks at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The Indian Industrial School at Carlisle became the model for the hundreds of government run American Indian boarding schools developed after 1879 as the government policy shifted from supporting religious organizations schools, often on or near where the native peoples lived, to government-run, off-reservation schools.
Removal from family, tribe, language, place, and culture was intended to speed the assimilation of the native children into the dominant Anglo society. Besides its total immersion of native people in Anglo culture and its militaristic methods, the school is noted for its Indian arts program taught by natives; the system that placed native students in Anglo homes, businesses, or farms to work; and an athletic program that produced football teams that beat the best college teams. Olympic gold medalist Jim Thorpe attended Carlisle and was voted the greatest athlete of the first half of the twentieth century in the United States.
The school closed on September 1, 1918, with pressure from U.S. senators in the West pushing for more schools in the West, congressional investigations of mismanagement at Carlisle, and the need for hospitals for soldiers fighting during World War I. The old barracks reverted to an Army hospital. Although it has been closed for nearly a century, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School continues to have an effect into the present. The school became the model for the residential school system and the lynchpin for destruction of native cultures, which has adversely affected the lives of native peoples for generations.
Pratt commanded African American cavalry troops and American Indian scouts in Indian Territory after the Civil War. He became convinced that the natives could be like the Whites if given the proper training. He volunteered to be in charge of seventy-two Native Americans charged with various crimes and imprisoned at Fort Marion in Florida. He started language instruction, drill, and other educational activities. These successes allowed him to convince General Armstrong to establish an Indian Department at Hampton Institute in Virginia, which had been established for freed slaves. Success there combined with local support in Carlisle, and concerns over the mixing of the two races at Hampton led to approval of the Carlisle Barracks School.
Native students’ physical appearance was quickly transformed by haircuts in Anglo style and military cadet-style uniforms. For many native males, hair length had cultural significance, with cutting often associated with mourning. Pratt proudly displayed before and after photographs.
Students were prohibited from speaking their own languages, were given English names, and were instructed in language by copying and imitating. Half their day was spent in academics and half at work or industrial training. Church attendance was required.
For many students, Carlisle was the end of their life. Disease and despair caused many deaths. For instance, the school reported that 21 out of 637 students died in 1889. In Pratt’s twenty-four years at Carlisle, less than 160 students graduated. Many students were sent to Anglo homes under the outing system. Originally, they were paid for their work, but later they became a source of cheap labor, especially in schools out West.
After Pratt’s departure, Indian culture became more acceptable at the school, and Angel De Cora, a mixed blood Winnebago with degrees from Hampton, Smith, and Drexel, was hired to teach art. Sports began to rule the school, especially football. The football team played the big colleges and was coached for a number of years by Glenn S. “Pop” Warner. The team produced many All-American selections, including Jim Thorpe in 1912. Other sport champions included Louis Tewanima in track and Charles Bender in baseball, who later pitched in a World Series. Yet, it was the highly successful football team, with its ability to raise big funds, which helped stir the congressional investigation in 1914 over alleged mismanagement that eventually led to the school’s closing.
- Pratt, H. (1964). Battlefield and classroom: Four decades with the American Indian, 1867–1904. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Reyhner, J., & Eder, J. (2004). American Indian education: A history. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. Witmer, L. (1993). The Indian Industrial School, Carlisle,
- Pennsylvania, 1879–1918. Carlisle, PA: Cumberland County Historical Society.
- Cumberland County Historical Society Carlisle Indian Industrial School: http://www.historicalsociety.com/ ciiswelcome.html
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